I, Tonya (Preview)
Reviewed by J. E. Smyth

Produced by Tom Ackerley, Margot Robbie, Steven Rogers, and Bryan Unkeless; directed by Craig Gillespie; screenplay by Steven Rogers; cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis; edited by Tatiana S. Riegel; production design by Jade Healy; starring Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, and Bobby Cannavale. Color, 121 min. A Neon release.

Tonya Harding’s former figure skating coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) sums it up in the first minute of I, Tonya: “Generally, people either love Tonya or…not big fans. Just like people either love America or they’re not big fans. Tonya was totally American.”

Unlike her rebellious pupil, Ms. Rawlinson “presents well” to middle-class viewers. Her hair is pale blonde and smooth. Her clothes, a little valentine of rose tones, match the upholstery on her floral sofa—which matches the honeysuckle watercolor print on the wall—which is echoed in the discreet floral teacup on her mahogany veneer T. J. Maxx side table. Can you be nauseated and nostalgic at the same time? Was it only twenty-five years ago that those florals, tea, casual-but-not-a-hair-out-of-place coiffures, soft, not quite sugary speech, and “nice” makeup connoted the right image of an American woman, while Tonya Harding’s frizzy hair, cigarettes, direct gaze, hell-bent careerism, and “succinct” language meant something else? And then you realize: this is supposed to be a “contemporary” interview—so, apart from the soundtrack, how much has actually changed in our cultural assumptions about women and class in America? This is one of many uncomfortable moments writer Steven Rogers and director Craig Gillespie stage for an audience primed to either love or hate American sports antiheroine Tonya Harding.

Producer Margot Robbie stars as Tonya Harding.

Ms. Rawlinson is right to a point. Harding was and still is totally American—but so are her loyal redneck fans and the stuck-up middle-class nobodies who dismiss her with a vague sneer. Star and producer Margot Robbie’s title performance is the best I’ve seen in several largely misspent years of watching contemporary Hollywood films. Her first, wordless glance at the camera nails the wary, hair-trigger hostility of the working-class outsider who doesn’t have anything to apologize for but would still like to knock the teeth out of your smug, middle-class face. The rest of her performance—housewife has-been, dutiful daughter, bitchy wife, whining diva—doesn’t disappoint. Critics who complained Robbie was too old to have attempted the scenes of Harding as a fifteen-year-old girl miss the reality of growing up then. Remembering some of my generation—with the hot pink J. C. Penney corduroys and short, rabbit-fur zip-ups—yes, we were fifteen going on thirty. The Coty eyeliner and pink frosted lipstick, the Aqua Net hairspray (only on the bangs), the cigarettes at twelve, the vicious fights at home that the television couldn’t drown out, the going-nowhere-slowly production design of our lives—all conspired to age girls about fifteen years.

Sebastian Stan as Jeff Gillooly and Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding.

The film’s other images of women are equally “American,” part of a horrifying, all-too-familiar homemade tapestry of female impoverishment, abuse, and posturing often engineered and scripted by men. The one that has elicited the most visceral reaction from critics and audiences is Allison Janney’s portrayal of mother LaVona “Sandy” Golden. There are monsters and monsters, and this mama makes Joan Crawford look like Mother Goose. At one point, young Tonya (Mckenna Grace) needs to get off the ice to pee. Her mother won’t let her: “I’ll be right here waiting,” she warns, and it’s like Freddy Krueger has spoken. She beats her daughter, kicks her chair over as she’s doing her homework, hires trolls to heckle her before competitions, attacks her with a knife, keeps her from talking to her peers since they are “the enemy,” and makes her drop out of high school. Mrs. Golden’s philosophy is: “Nice gets you shit.” And why does she do this? Why, for her daughter, of course! If her offspring fails, she gets to complain for years about how she wasted her life and money on an ungrateful child. If the kid makes good, then the mother really hits pay dirt (her daughter supports her till death unless she wants more complaints). That’s how the American family functions as a viable capitalist concern.

I, Tonya isn’t a totally satisfying American horror story. It’s poor Nancy Kerrigan who gets the baton to the leg; no one chops up LaVona with an axe or gets her right between the eyes with a BB gun. Like a repulsive Long John Silver with her parrot on her shoulder (I was waiting for the bird to shit on the old crone), mom gets to tell her tale of woe to the camera. Janney, in a performance some critics have called Oscar-worthy, does know how to play a bitch. But roles of this kind are easy treats for actors—they can really let it rip and enjoy their work.

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding.

I found myself wishing the filmmakers had included more of the other stage-mother cows that Golden and her daughter had to put up with on a regular basis—first at school, and later on and off the ice. We see LaVona swearing at her daughter, loading her coffee with alcohol, and telling her fairy-princess coach, “Lick my ass, Diane,” when the latter insists that Tonya needs a fur coat for competitions. (The father, who shoots some of the rabbits for same with Tonya, is the typical sweet screen dad who rides off alone into the sunset.) But we don’t see the “subtleties” of American snobbery in Steven Rogers’s script—the social exclusion from the L. L. Bean set, the self-satisfied, condescending looks, the ridiculous posturing of no-named housewives with submediocre high-school educations who thought Martha Stewart was the height of class. No wonder LaVona and later Tonya got so pissed off with the national criteria for success.

We do get some more astute critiques of the male and female figure skating judges who resent the fact that Harding “doesn’t want to be conventional” and refuses “to play along” by not advertising her “wholesome” American family. When paired with the few exhilarating scenes of Harding (Robbie and her stunt doubles) landing her jumps and proving she was worth all that money LaVona spent on her lessons, these mealy-mouthed judges look like washed-up moral gatekeepers in a sport that’s “fucking rigged” to promote a Disney version of sweet young girls who take their beatings with a smile. They’re only part of a wider problem of American class and gender that Rogers and Gillespie’s film doesn’t fully address…

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Copyright © 2018 by Cineaste, Inc.

Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 2